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Their Profits or Their Lives

In Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood plays a “Preacher” who stops outside a fictional California mining town for a spell and helps a small commune of tin panners who are being tortured by the big mining boss in the town back in the 1880s. At one point, the mining boss tries to buy off the Preacher.  "You can't serve God and Mammon, Mammon being money," replies the Preacher when declining the mining boss’s bribe.

Never mind that Eastwood wasn’t really a Preacher in that film. Just fast forward to reality, where mining bosses regularly make it clear even today that they serve Mammon only, consequences be damned.

While the members of the United Mine Workers of America continue the fight against the drive for mining profits at all costs, workers at Wal-Mart are standing up to the profit hungry retailer.

But not even their efforts could stop the drive for lower prices and higher profits from killing 112 workers in a deadly fire at an apparel factory in Bangladesh that was making clothes for the giant retailer and other major corporations.

Wal-Mart is not taking any responsibility for the deaths. Instead, official statements released by the company blame a rogue supplier for subcontracting work to the Bangladeshi factory without authorization.

What happened in Bangladesh is a human rights tragedy on a global scale. For many families in Bangladesh, it’s a personal tragedy. It is also a labor issue. Workers are entitled to safe working conditions.

Survivors of the fire accuse supervisors from stopping them from leaving the nine-story building and padlocking the exits – telling them it was just a routine drill and that they had nothing to worry about. Bangladesh officials are calling the fire an act of sabotage.

Lives could have been saved if exits weren’t blocked.

Wal-Mart has long been criticized for its retaliation tactics against employees who speak out about negative working conditions, and the company has a well documented record of creating a hostile environment for workers and paying them low wages.

Wal-Mart is the largest buyer in Bangladesh. It sets the market conditions in the country. And now the company has blood on its hands.  The problem is, there is no real punishment for its crimes.

Like the Deep Water explosion that killed 11 oil rig workers, the consequences for the murder of employees is doled out in dollars and cents, save for a few sacrificial supervisors who are charged with carrying out the profit at all costs philosophy.

This incident hits close to home and is reminiscent of one of the deadliest industrial fires in New York City’s history - the Triangle Waist Factory fire almost 100 years ago. That fire ushered in a new era of labor rights for employees across the United States after 146 people (mostly young Jewish and Italian women) became trapped inside a factory after a fire broke out. Managers of that factory too locked the doors, blocking workers’ exits during the blaze, causing  dozens of people to jump to their deaths to escape the burning building. In the aftermath, and at the urging of garment and textile works unions, legislation was developed that changed labor laws within New York and across the U.S. that required better building access and fireproofing requirements.

But those changes for the better are now characterized as the reason it’s too expensive to make much in the way of clothes here anymore.

It’s sad that the justification for the choice between decent wages and working conditions versus the cheapest wages and the worst conditions is ingrained in our society as “Everyday Low Prices.” And every day, customers of Wal-Mart vote with their feet and pocketbooks.

Fire fighters more than most know what it means to have a voice on the job to ensure a safe and fair work place. Protesters in Bangladesh are now speaking out over working conditions and are demonstrating in the industrial belt on the outskirts of the capital where the factory is located.

Workers are entitled to safe working conditions. Wal-Mart earns $16 billion in profits and can afford to provide a safe environment and livable wages for workers. Workers have the right to unionize and bargain collectively and voice their concerns if they feel their work environment is inferior or unsafe without the fear of retaliation from their employer.

We should hold Wal-Mart accountable for its business practices.  We should hold BP and Massey and Disney accountable. It’s hard to do because it means researching and being vigilant when making purchases. It means paying a little more for things you need or want.  It means driving a mile or two to the next gas station. 

One way to stand on the side of workers is by shopping locally for U.S.A. and Canadian union made goods where available this holiday season. 

Considering that we ask our communities to stand with us when our members are faced with cuts or layoffs, we at least should try to do our part for other workers in return.

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